Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Character Creation

When I first started writing (fiction, not the alphabet in kindergarten), I used to come up with characters as I go along. I would create a name and, armed with a vague idea of who or what, throw a new character into the mix. Then the details of appearance and personality and everything else would gradually start to take form.

Because of this, there have been many cases when I had no idea where the character was headed and sometimes the end result would take me completely by surprise, both in a good and a bad way.

A definite downside to this was that there were times when I created protagonists who would meander through the story, not really having direction or stable characteristics. There was a case when a friend said, "This character is a real enigma. I'm not sure what to think of him." My response to that was, "Me neither!"

Perhaps there's one good outcome of doing things so haphazardly (or so says the glass-half-full side of me). Human beings are complex creatures, not confined to strict categories or defined entirely by labels. While a thorough character blueprint certainly helps a writer get a good handle on the character, it's possible that it limits the range of behavior or thoughts the character is allowed to have.

So perhaps, and this is only a guess, not defining a character rigidly might allow him or her to have more dimensions as long as the writer also takes measures to monitor the character's progress throughout the story--something I clearly failed to do in the past.

While it's fun to discover about a character much the same way a reader would--by seeing him or her in action--it's also much too risky. So I've tried to take the safe road and spend as much time on developing the character beforehand as I do on coming up with the storyline. And I start this in an unusual way: creating a character's motto before all else, sometimes even before a name.

I first did this on a whim one day. I looked at the character page of one of my stories and decided to entertain myself with them. I set up an interview with all three main characters, answering questions the way I imagine my characters would.

It's also a surprisingly fun exercise that all writers should partake in at least once.

Example of an interview question and diverse answers:

What do you like most about yourself?

First: I’m a quick study.

Second: Thanks to the discipline my father instilled in me, I can face any situation without irrational emotions clouding my judgment.

Third: What’s not to like?  (A bit of a narcissist, which means I enjoyed her answers the most)

Interviewing imaginary people: Three parts awesome and one part sad.

One of the questions happened to be, "What is your motto?" It was toughest one to answer, but also the most revealing. Each character's response was unique to him or her: What does he stand for? How does she cope with life? What does he/she belief at his/her core?

By doing this, I suddenly have a solid and vivid vision of each character. And the process of creating a new character is different now. With this single defining statement about a new character, I can build on it and tie everything back to it, from appearance to personality to hobbies.

Mottoes of past characters (one of them shares my own):

"Where my people are concerned, the ends always justify the means"
"If it can be done, it will be done"
"I wear an iron mask even at my weakest"
"Never lose self-control" - (Interestingly, this character and the one above are very similar externally, but couldn't be more different internally).
"Better to be hated than to be pitied"
"I am confined to nothing, not even the truth"
"Justice, loyalty, and kinship"
"A sword says more about a man than his words"

Since I started doing this, I find myself connecting better with new characters and having a blast bringing them to life!


  1. How many novels/stories have you written?

    1. One official novel, several in progress, and a couple of abandoned ones from years back (which I consider were good practice).

  2. Any tips on how to create good mottoes?

    1. For me, the key to a good motto is first having a good sense of what the character's role is. For example, "Justice, loyalty and kinship" probably wouldn't suit a villain. Then, before writing anything, I try to have a basic understanding of who/what sort of person I'm dealing with. Once that's solid in mind and I've constructed a single sentence that defines the character, I start to come up with written details about the character, all the while using the motto as a point of reference. I've found that, with a motto, it's easier to remember what is important to the person throughout writing the story. Even if the character isn't new, I try to take a moment to create a motto and use it from then on. :)

  3. I can think of what my character will be like but no motto, any advice?

    1. The motto is a reflection of a character's most important trait or outlook or personal goal. If your character is a jerk, why so? Is it because he trusts no one? "Trust no one" could be that motto that helps you stay on character (it doesn't have to be original, just specific). Is it because he's arrogant? Maybe then it would be "Survival of the fittest" or "Kindness is weakness" or something. Hope that helps and thanks!

  4. "If it can be done, it will be done" is that the one you share?
    Just a guess ;)

    1. Haha, yes! Kind of awesome and freaky how you picked that out. =P What it means is that the character believes he can achieve anything, so long as it's humanly possible. It's something I've always believed in as well, and it's given me confidence in the things I try.